Bernalillo Tire offers a step back in time
You wouldn’t know just driving by what wonders await customers inside Bernalillo Tire. A trip to the little shop just west of Taco Bell to buy tires or fix a flat can provide an enjoyable step back in time. The shop is filled with fifty-year-old Coca-Cola machines, vintage Tonka trucks, Matchbox cars, Big Boy banks, a soda fountain counter, marble collection, toy spin tops, and other nostalgia-filled collectibles.
Owner Phillip Valverde has been in the tire business for twenty-five years. He opened Bernalillo Tire on the far south end of Main Street nearly ten years ago. Prior to that he worked at several gas stations and tire shops around town. He remembers working at the old Plateau gas station on Highway 44 where customers came in as much for the free chewing gum as for the full service. Valverde said when the station ran out of gum, the customers stayed away.
For the last five years, he’s been set up on what he says is one of the busiest highways in the state. The location allows him to meet a lot of people and to make friendly connections with customers from all across the country. Valverde said he tried to quit the tire business a time or two but always came back to it. “One thing we work hard at is basic service. People who come in here get the best value and best service we can offer,” he said. But what sets the shop apart is that customers are pleasantly surprised when they walk in and discover all the wonderful items on display.
Most of the things that Valverde collects relate back to his childhood. He said that he acquired his first bike, a Schwinn Stingray, by selling Grit newspapers. Back in the sixties, the Grit Company advertised in comic books that kids could earn free prizes by selling their product. Valverde responded. Later he says he traded up to better bikes. He also used his bikes to work for politicians who paid him to drop campaign literature door-to-door. His continuing love of bicycles is evidenced by a few three-wheelers that sit outside the front door of the shop.
This past summer Valverde acquired an Eskimo Pie ice-cream-vending bicycle from the original owner in Albuquerque. The seller said that the elegant bike was one of two used in the late forties by brothers with ice cream routes, one north and one south of downtown Central Avenue. Valverde said it took years for him to acquire the bike. He had it on display in Bernalillo for a short time before it was whisked away by another collector. Valverde says the new purchaser was so fond of the bike that he could have sold it for much more. But he says when he sells an item, he hopes the new owner will have as much fun with it as he did.
The bright red round-top Coca-Cola machines on display are something Valverde has collected for many years. They still work and about ten cases of Coke in eight-ounce bottles are consumed each month. Valverde says his fondness for soda machines probably dates back to when he was a kid and sorted Coke, Nehi, RC Cola, and other soda bottles in the back of his dad’s grocery store in California.
The classic soda pop machines date back to a time when a customer paid at the counter and then removed a cold bottle from the vertical dispensing rack. Old machines in mint condition now sell for $2,000 to $5,000. A serious collector will run his hand over the front of the machine to determine if the letters are embossed. Valverde’s machines serve as sort of a calling card for the tire shop. He will offer a bottle of Coke to a customer while sharing memories about a simpler era.
Another item that is prominent in the shop is Big Boy restaurant toy banks. Big Boy mascots with the red-and-white checked shirt, suspenders, and slicked back hair are scattered on shelves and in boxes throughout the shop. Valverde says he would love to own a full-size Big Boy like the ones that used to stand outside the hamburger chain restaurants. Transporting the giant icon to Bernalillo is the detail that still stands in the way.
His prize possession is a ‘49 Mercury, currently under restoration, what he calls a “James Dean car.” “I’ve owned several classic cars, but this one is it!” he said. Valverde is rebuilding the car, which he estimates will be worth between $80,000 to $100,000 when complete. He says it will be a rebuilt new car in a ‘49 frame. He plans to drive it to classic car shows, not load it onto a trailer for transport as many other owners do.
A fondness for motorcycles has led Valverde to a community fund-raising project. Valverde has organized a raffle of a 2001 Harley Davidson Road King to benefit Bernalillo High School athletics. Only five hundred tickets at $50 each are being sold for a chance to win the prize motorcycle, valued at $18,000. The winner will be drawn at the final Spartan football game of the season, late in November. Tickets can be purchased at Bernalillo Tire.
Valverde says that he enjoys talking with customers about the big and small items that he has pieced together over the years. Sometimes he says a conversation about a favorite item will make his day. “When you come in and start talking about this stuff, I’ll tell you everything I know,” he said. “I’m living the American dream. I want to do this as long as I can.”